Last year, Vice President Joseph Biden gave credit to the public shift in attitudes toward gay relationships to “Will & Grace,” bolstering the notion that Hollywood has played a central role in the turnabout in public opinion to the point where a steady stream of states are adopting same-sex marriage. The latest is Hawaii, where the first marriages were performed starting on Monday.
But the reality of showbiz’s impact on same-sex marriage is a bit more nuanced.
The role of showbiz in a major cultural issue was part of a recent panel at CAA, featuring actor Neil Patrick Harris and pro basketball player Jason Collins, as well as Evan Wolfson, one of the pioneers of the same-sex marriage movement and the founder and president of Freedom to Marry. Wolfson, based in Washington, has been meeting with entertainment donors to draw support for the next steps in winning passage of marriage equality in more states.
“I don’t think it is as simple as Hollywood does a really good movie, and Hollywood does a really good TV show, and everyone changes their mind,” Wolfson said in an interview. “Obviously, it doesn’t work that way. What really changes people’s minds over time is personal conversations with people they trust….but ‘Will & Grace’ and Ellen DeGeneres and others who are out there create a climate that encourages people to have those conversations.”
He adds, “It is oversimplifying to say Hollywood can win this just by being Hollywood, but it is 100 percent true to say Hollywood has a major role to play in creating the climate and enabling individuals to have conversations.”
Wolfson cites poll questions posed to voters in Maine. In 2009, the state’s voters rejected a legislative effort to pass same-sex marriage, only to approve it just three years later. When asked what prompted them to think about the issue, “the overriding answer was TV,” Wolfson said. When asked what led them to change their minds, the answer was “personal conversations with someone I trust,” he says.
“No one is better at telling stories and sparking conversation than Hollywood. So that climate, that air cover of storytelling and engaging people to think anew, is what enables the ground game of the personal conversations and the legal and political work to succeed.”
Wolfson wrote his Harvard Law School thesis on same-sex marriage in 1983, and then worked on a Hawaii case two decades ago that challenged the state’s refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. After the state Supreme Court found such prohibitions discriminatory, the state legislature took steps to limit nuptials to opposite sex couples. The state legislature’s recent switch to support for same-sex marriage, Wolfson says, “just underscores the fact that if you keep working at it, keep talking to people, you can change things. People rise to fairness.” Lawmakers who voted for an amendment banning same-sex marriage had evolved, to use a political buzzword, and were now “in the audience [when same-sex marriage passed] weeping with joy,” Wolfson says.
But he now says a challenge is complacency. So far, 16 states have adopted same-sex marriage, representing about 38% of the population, whether through the courts, the legislature or at the ballot box. The next states, however, present new challenges. A ballot initiative is being organized for next year in Oregon to approve same-sex marriage, but Freedom to Marry also has a goal of winning six more states by 2016, perhaps in areas of the industrial midwest like Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, western states like Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada or southern states like Virginia and North Carolina. Their goal is to have same sex marriage legal in states covering half the U.S. population by 2016.
“People used to say it’s impossible,” he says. “Now they say it’s inevitable. And the truth is it’s never been either. It is the part in the middle where you have to do the work.”
Wolfson estimates that it will take “around $135 million” to “finish the job” of expanding same-sex marriage nationwide. One question that came up at CAA was how they plan to win in the Deep South. He calls them “progress states,” where they are not likely to win support in all four corners of the state, but they can make enough inroads to have an impact on public opinion.
“We are not done until it is done for everyone, and the good news is that it is within reach, and the states that are farther along are engines that bring the country along in this national strategy if we keep the work,” he says.
This year’s Supreme Court decisions struck down a ban on federal recognition of same-sex marriage, and another ruling that led to the end of California’s Proposition 8. What they didn’t do, however, was decide the “full question” of whether excluding same-sex couples from marriage is constitutional.
Wolfson has an expectation that such a question will come back to the court, what with more than 40 cases now pending in federal courts. That, ultimately, is what would bring same-sex marriage to the entire country, just as a 1967 Supreme Court ruling invalidated the remaining state bans on interracial marriage.
“Drawing from the lessons of other civil rights chapters in American history, we know that we don’t have to win freedom to marry within the four corners of every single state,” he says. “No movement has ever done that, no social justice change has ever come that way. It comes when the Supreme Court brings this country to national resolution, but the Supreme Court doesn’t do that, history tells us, until a movement like ours has achieved a critical mass of states and a critical mass of public opinion. So the strategy has always been to win more states and to win over more hearts and minds, to set the stage for what will be a return to the Supreme Court to finish the job.”